Apiece Apart Woman: The Women of Coco's Cantina

Apiece Apart Woman The Women of Coco's Cantina

This week, we are honored to share a dispatch from Auckland, New Zealand — and a snapshot of an early summer lunch with sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter and their mother Nuku. The sisters are the founders of popular Auckland cafe Coco’s Cantina, which has added a palpable heart to the local community. With Coco’s, owners and sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter have created an environment both warm and bustling, drawing inspiration from Italian cuisine and the family table.

In addition to owning a thriving local business, Renee and Damaris also recognize the value that being the center of a community can contribute … and they are deliberate about using this position to help others, speaking up for those without a voice or platform, and standing up for honesty, transparency, and manners. As well as working with local farmers and food producers on a daily basis, Coco’s also grow its own herbs and vegetables from Nuku’s garden in Maramarua. The garden serves to both nourish customers and the Coco’s team — providing an opportunity to be outside, feel the sun, breathe in the air, and dig their hands into rich, nutritious soil. Continuously reexamining and reflecting, the Coco’s family reminds us that running a business also means taking responsibility.

After a walk through the garden, we sat down for a homemade lunch with Renee, Damaris, Nuku and family in their sun-dappled courtyard. 

Photos by Greta Van Der Star, interview by Yasmine Ganley

Apiece Apart Woman Coco's CantinaApiece Apart Woman Coco's Cantina

The level of warmth and hospitality is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of a Coco's experience. Can you recall some of the ways in which this may have been practiced at home together when you were younger? 
We had the best nana. The oven was always on and the back door was always open. Our nana’s house literally had an Open Door Policy. Whenever you arrived, whoever you were: postman, neighbor, traveling salesman — you would be invited to sit down at her table. You couldn’t refuse: whatever the time of day, the tea would be put on and a simple meal would appear. Decades later, friends still mention the mince on toast served at midnight (with a fish finger served on the side!) or the still-warm banana cake sent in a loaded picnic basket. If Coco’s feels even a bit like our nana made her home feel to those who popped in, we will be doing a pretty good job.
 
Before moving to Auckland, we were raised in a small rural community, the type of place where all important dates were celebrated at the local hall. When we recall these events (Christmas parties, birthdays, fundraisers, 80’s yoga classes with unruly kids running around…) they were always rounded off with cups of tea poured out of giant teapots and an amazing ‘spread.’ The food was basic but delicious, plentiful and homemade (often with ingredients from the garden). It was a place where everyone was welcome and no one ever went home hungry. The warmth and fun of those gatherings made a real impression on us.

Apiece Apart Woman Coco's Cantina
Apiece Apart Woman Coco's Cantina

And how about the food side of things? What are some meals you remember eating together as a family? 
Things were pretty basic in the far north of New Zealand during the 1980s, so nothing much from that time has made it onto the Coco’s menu. However, Damaris’s time living in Italy and our family trips to visit her and subsequent trips back there have definitely influenced our menu. I remember on one visit to Italy, Damaris and I hadn’t seen each other for about a year. We had decided to cook a big meal to celebrate. In the middle of the supermarket we had a massive argument because we disagreed on the brand of pasta. We aren’t Italian but our passions run deep when it comes to cooking, and cooking pasta! We learned early on that one of us cooks and one of us sorts the table/music and drinks; just like a restaurant, really…
 
Being sisters in business together, can you tell us about how you complement each other and how your unique attributes serve the business?
Damaris is braver than me [Renee]. Business can be risky, so I try to balance the risks. I’m slow, soft, and steady, while Damaris is hard, fast, and fun. Certain situations call for one or the other, sometimes they need both. After eight years in business together we are still working out which one should come first: hard or soft, fast or slow.

Apiece Apart Woman Coco's Cantina
Apiece Apart Woman Coco's Cantina

 

What are some aspects of the restaurant that are absolute constants for you?
Haha! Coco’s is a bad example of constant. I’d say having a tight crew, a team that really gels and has each other’s backs, and who really enjoys what they are doing right now. We honor that they may not want to do this forever, but as long as they are loving it right now. Also, the menu is an absolute constant: it will always reflect the basic principle of Italian cooking, which is to take three key ingredients, and let them shine.

Running a restaurant is no easy task. Rest must be important for you both. How do you make sure you are operating with enough to give each day?
Sleep is like money: bank it for when you don’t have it. Personally I write lists before going to bed, then I sleep pretty easy.

What do you feel is the most important thing to practice each day? 
I remind myself that small changes made by many can contribute to real change — the current [political] situation won’t be around forever. Things are constantly changing.  

Apiece Apart Woman Coco's Cantina